Final Four Predictions

Posted: 04/02/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

We have two superstars (Buddy Hield and Brice Johnson) and four iconic coaches. We have a pre-tournament favorite (North Carolina), a super under-appreciated team (Villanova), and a “Cinderella” in 10-seed Syracuse, name and coach Boeheim aside. This is set up to be an awesome Final Four. Who’ll be playing in the National Championship Game?

Villanova vs. Oklahoma: I can’t believe that this isn’t the primetime game tonight. Do people really want to see UNC-Syracuse rather than this one? This begins, of course, with Buddy Hield. I know, some of the Hield talk gets kind of annoying, but it’s also completely unavoidable. Hield is one of four 25+ per-game scorers who have made the Final Four, and he’s in the company of Larry Bird, Glenn Rice, and Dennis Scott. Not bad. Also not bad? Hield has scored 117 points in four tournament games and has generally looked absolutely unstoppable, hitting impossible shot after impossible shot en route to 57% shooting and 19/40 three point shooting. The only player in the last 20 years to score more points in the first four games of any tournament is a certain slight ex-Davidson point guard. Maybe you’ve heard of him. The unfortunate thing for opponents is that Hield isn’t a one-man team, either. Jordan Woodard has poured in nearly 17 points per game through the four tournament games and is liable to get really hot from beyond the arc if he’s left open. Throw in Isaiah Cousins’s 11 ppg in the tournament and Oklahoma’s three high-octane guards are pouring in 57 points per contest. That accounts for 70% of the team’s scoring. So if Hield and Co. are so unstoppable offensively, how the heck is Villanova favored in this game? Well, the Wildcats aren’t too bad themselves. Kenpom’s top team just knocked off overall #1 Kansas, and they have the talent, depth, and grit to win two more games. I’m going to avoid talking about Ryan Arcidiacono, because everyone loves talking about the gritty white point guard who just plays. so. hard. The key to the offense is opening things up with some threes and then relying on Daniel Ochefu post-ups, Josh Hart slashes, and Kris Jenkins isolations to put points on the board. This isn’t a team that collects a huge number of offensive rebounds, but they’re efficient enough on their first trip that the lack of efficiency doesn’t normally come back to haunt them. They probably won’t score with the efficiency they did in their first three games, but they showed against Kansas that they can grind things out even if they aren’t playing particularly good offense. That grit should serve them well here against Oklahoma’s high-octane offense. The key question, of course, is whether the Wildcats will be able to slow Hield. Well, they just held Kansas star Perry Ellis to four points, so they clearly have the ability to stifle the opponent’s best player, but Hield is obviously a different beast. I expect ‘Nova to play the Sooners straight up, going man-to-man and putting one of their guards on Hield. They have to be ready to see a few Buddy shots go through the net because that’s unavoidable, but they also must make him uncomfortable and make him give the ball up. For all Hield’s offensive talent, he’s not really good at anything else, which is why I still wouldn’t advise an NBA team to draft him in the top five. Hield is a lazy defender, as he often tries to conserve energy on that side of the court so he can do what he does offensively. Villanova, more than most teams, can take advantage of that with their three explosive starting guards and talent off the bench (Malik Bridges has been tremendous). After putting up 14 turnovers and only six assists in the first four games of the tournament, it’s clear that Hield is also not a very good distributor. The Sooners tend to turn the ball over a lot, which is why they haven’t scored more than 85 points this tournament despite looking unstoppable on offense. Villanova doesn’t always play fast, but they do look to get out in transition when they can, and they should have opportunities there tonight. Look out for Hart, Jalen Brunson, and Bridges in transition. I know that Buddy is getting all of the hype, but I actually like the matchups for the Wildcats in this one, even though they were crushed by Oklahoma in December. April is not December, though, and I expect a very different result in this one. Villanova wins 78-71.

North Carolina vs. Syracuse: We know how UNC can win this game. They can play like they did in the East regional OR they can hope Syracuse returns to regular-season form. Either of those things will likely result in a comfortable North Carolina victory, which is why the Tar Heels are favored by 9.5 points. Instead, I’m going to focus on how Syracuse, clearly the worst of the four Final Four teams, can beat the favorite. Here’s the blueprint:

  • Use the aggressive zone to keep North Carolina out of the paint. The Tar Heels are unstoppable when Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and the rest of their big men get the ball in a good position, and they’re also hard to beat when their guards can penetrate so easily.
  • Hope North Carolina regresses to the mean in terms of three point shooting. After shooting 30% from beyond the arc throughout the season, the Tar Heels were 15/33 from three in Philadelphia last weekend. Marcus Paige, one of the biggest underachievers in college basketball this season, is shooting 48% from three in the tournament. ‘Cuse just has to hope UNC cools down, because they can’t overplay the three.
  • Do the opposite of what they did pace-wise against Virginia. Against the Cavaliers, Syracuse was successful when they started pressing and speeding up the most deliberate team in the country. North Carolina, though, is lethal in transition and can run away with game when allowed to run. Notre Dame milked the clock against the Heels and was able to stay in the game for awhile. Syracuse should do the same thing.
  • Hope Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije can lead Syracuse’s offense. Those two guards must create, both for themselves and for others.

Will some of those things happen? Yes. Will all of them? Probably not. North Carolina wins 82-74.

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